The HEARTs Research Group (est. 2015) is an interdisciplinary multi-institution community of race and health scholars consisting of undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral scholars and faculty collaborators interested in interrogating relationships between race, racism and health. We use a social-psychobiological framework to interrogate the intersection of socio-environmental risks and the biological embedding of lived social experience. The HEARTs Research Group promotes research and scholarship related to understanding why some groups, particularly racially minoritized groups, live sicker and die sooner than others. We are a collaborative training ground for those interested in applying social theory and a variety of research methods to examining the connections between social inequalities and racial health inequities.

HEARTs is guided by several underlying themes: the conceptualization and measurement of racism as a social determinant of health; the embodiment of social stress with a focus on weathering and race-related stress, biological dysregulation and premature biological aging; and understanding the intersection of race, gender, age, and socioeconomic position and its impact on health inequities. HEARTs activities include research collaborations, WIP (work-in-progress) seminars, journal club, developing abstracts and conference presentations, manuscript development, grant-writing, and other professional development activities.

Culture of HEARTs

  • Compassionate excellence
  • Peer mentorship
  • Community building
  • Collaborative learning
  • Shared accountability
  • Conceptual + methodological rigor
  • Primacy of the research question
  • Researcher ≠ Scholar
  • Celebrate successes – big and small
  • Respect and recognition for the humanity and dignity of research participants (not just data)
  • Have fun
  • Be HUMAN and authentic
  • Cultivating strong HEARTs and minds!

Team Members

Faculty Headshot for Amani AllenPrincipal Investigator

Dr. Amani Allen, PhD, MPH

Amani M. Allen is Executive Associate Dean and Professor of Community Health Sciences and Epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, where her research focuses on race and socioeconomic health disparities and the measurement and study of racism as a social determinant of health. Her broad research interest is to integrate concepts, theories and methods from epidemiology and the social and biomedical sciences to examine racial inequalities in health as they exist across populations, across place, and over the life-course. Allen is Principal Investigator (PI) of the African American Women’s Heart & Health Study, which examines the association between racism and other forms of socio-environmental stress and various health outcomes including cardiometabolic risk, physiologic dysregulation, biological aging, and pregnancy outcomes among African American women in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is also PI of the Anticipatory Racism Stress Scale National Validation Study which is focused on validating a new measure of anticipatory racism stress among a national sample of African American women ages 25-64. Her research has included work on doctor-patient race-concordance; the intersection of race, socioeconomic position, and gender on risk for psychological distress, disability, adult mortality, and child health and development; racial segregation; income inequality; racial discrimination and the psychobiology of stress; and the measurement of social determinants of health and its implications for validity in epidemiologic studies. Dr. Allen has published numerous academic articles in top scientific journals including the American Journal of Public Health, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Annals of Epidemiology, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences and Psychoneuroendocrinology; several of her papers examining racial discrimination and physiologic dysregulation have been selected as Editor’s Choice. Her work has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, NPR, CBSNews, BlackPress USA, The Urban League, Essence Magazine, US News & World Report, WebMD, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and the SF Chronicle, among others. She has received numerous awards for teaching excellence and as a junior faculty member was honored with the singular award for Distinguished Graduate Student Mentoring at the University of California Berkeley.

Research Affiliate
Rachel L. Berkowitz, DrPH, MPH

Rachel L. Berkowitz, DrPH, MPH, is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Health Equity & Implementation Science with UC Berkeley and the Sutter Health Center for Health Systems Research. Her work focuses on understanding and addressing how systems, structures, and places create and perpetuate health inequities. She has experience in the use of qualitative, quantitative, and participatory methods to conduct applied and community-based research. Her current work involves assessing the ways in which neighborhood contexts contribute to racial inequities in health outcomes (with a particular focus on birth outcomes and maternal outcomes) and evaluating the implementation and impact of health equity-related healthcare system interventions. She received her BA in Cultural Anthropology from Northwestern University, her MPH in Global Health from Emory University, and her DrPH from UC Berkeley. In her free time, she enjoys cooking/baking, painting, trying to keep plants alive, and playing with her cat.

Research Affiliate
David Chae, ScD, MA

David Chae, Sc.D., M.A., is Associate Professor in the Department of Global Community Health and Behavioral Sciences, Director of the Society, Health, and Racial Equity (SHARE) Lab, and Associate Dean for Research at Tulane University, School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. His research focuses on the social determinants of health inequities and embodiment of racism. He studies racism as a social-environmental toxin that shapes the inequitable population-level distribution of disease. As part of this work, he investigates the interplay between social context, developmental period, behavior, and biology, and links to disease susceptibility and progression. In 2019 he was elected to the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research, the honorary senior scientist society for those whose research is at the interface of behavior and medicine. He is Associate Editor of the journal Health Education & Behavior, on the Editorial Board of Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, and serves on several scientific research groups dedicated to the study of racism.

Postdoctoral Scholar
Suzanne M. Dufault, PhD, MA

Suzanne M. Dufault, PhD, MA, is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Biostatistics at UC Berkeley. Her research is focused on the generation of statistical methods to assist in the rigorous development and evaluation of innovative solutions to public health problems and inequities. Her expertise primarily concerns statistical methods for evaluating the prevention of vector-borne infectious diseases, typically through cluster randomized trials. As a biostatistician, she has had the unique pleasure of working with researchers across the many diverse areas of public health, including projects on “deaths of despair” in General Motors Autoworkers in Michigan, hypertensive disorders of pregnancy and breast cancer in the UK Biobank cohort, and the development and validation of a measure of anticipatory racist threat in a nationally representative sample of African American women. When not working, she can be found enjoying the company of her friends at a happy hour or hike, swimming, or watching comedy.

Student Researcher
Elleni Hailu, MPH

Elleni Hailu is a second year PhD student in Epidemiology. Her interests are in addressing the mechanisms by which structural racism is embodied across the lifecourse to influence racial disparities in adverse cardiovascular and maternal health outcomes. Her current work also examines the link between experiences of discrimination, neighborhood social environments, and disease risk.  She aims to employ interdisciplinary theories along with novel data analytic methods to conduct research that informs policies. Elleni earned her MPH in Epidemiology/Biostatistics from UC Berkeley and her BS in Public Health Sciences from Santa Clara University. Elleni enjoys spending quality time with family and friends, hiking, and visiting parks/lakes/beaches.

Research Affiliate
Blessing James, BA

Blessing James (she series) is a Class of 2020 Cal alum, graduated with a BA in Public Health and minor in Global Poverty and Practice. She joined HEARTs as a research apprentice, working in data collection and analysis. She has contributed to several projects working alongside apprentice partners and facilitating student research groups, and currently focuses on data acquisition and analysis in present projects. Her interests include community health, global health, racial disparities in health care and health outcomes, and the centralization of empathy and community experience in her Public Health praxis.

Student Researcher
Tracy Lam-Hine, MBA

Tracy Lam-Hine is a third-year DrPH student with a focus on social epidemiologic methods, critical mixed-race studies (CMRS), and the health of multiracial people. He is interested in conceptualizing multiracial peoples’ unique experiences with institutional and personally-mediated racism, measuring the health impacts of those experiences, and examining racialization in epidemiology from a CMRS perspective. Tracy currently works as an epidemiologist at the Marin County health department, and has a BS in Economics and Public Policy from UC Berkeley and an MBA from the University of Washington. In his free time, Tracy enjoys travel to warm places, cooking and eating, and taking his dog Mochi to the beach.

Student Researcher
Kevin Lee, MPH

Kevin Lee is a third-year DrPH student whose research interest focuses on conceptualizing structural discrimination and the effects of racial capitalism through social policies. He is especially interested in exploring the racial health inequities arising from immigration and labor policies, specifically focusing on how work and labor conditions such as wage theft impacts the health of low-wage immigrant workers of color. His recent work examines immigrant and refugee workforce development, the effects of COVID-19 on health coverage among low-wage workers, and COVID-19 workplace inequities. Kevin received both his BA in Ethnic Studies and Psychology, and MPH in Health & Social Behavior from UC Berkeley. In his spare time, he enjoys backpacking; traveling; (eating) food; his Monstera, Monty; and exploring cities, both big and small.

Research Affiliate
Rebecca Margarita Mendez, MPH

Rebecca Mendez has her Master of Public Health, focused on Community Health Education. She is lab manager and research assistant for the Health Equity Research (HER) lab and is also and a peer-mentor. She has more than eight years of experience in cell and molecular techniques, including biomarker analysis and gene expression. Her research encompasses the impact of love, racial discrimination, chronic stress, and premature aging across racial/ethnic groups. She has collaborated in several community-based research projects including, Benioff Preterm Birth Initiative, Promoting Activity & Stress Reduction in the Outdoors (PASITO), the Love project, and Healing in Nature. These projects all strive to contribute to the existing body of knowledge regarding how marginalized and underserved Bay Area communities & lived experiences affect biological mechanisms and serve as social determinants of health.

Research Affiliate
Leticia Márquez-Magaña, PhD

Leticia Márquez-Magaña, PhD is Professor of Biology and the Director of the Health

Equity Research (HER) Laboratory at San Francisco State University. She is the first-

born daughter of Mexican immigrants and began her education in the U.S. only

speaking Spanish. Professor Márquez-Magaña attended Stanford University as the first member of her extended U.S. family to complete high school. She earned a co-terminal BS/MS degree in Biological Sciences at this university, and went on to earn a PhD in Biochemistry at UC Berkeley before returning to Stanford to complete post-doctoral training in molecular pharmacology. She joined the faculty at SF State in 1994 targeting her professional efforts to “give back.” For example, some of these efforts are focused on guiding attainment of the overall mission of the HER lab to “Link Basic Science to Community Health”; Towards this end, projects in the lab are aimed at developing or using biomedical tools to study how social injustice gets under the skin to cause or worsen disease. This information can then contribute to advocacy efforts to change policies and practices for health equity.

Student Researcher
Eli Michaels, MPH

Eli Michaels, MPH is a 4th year PhD candidate in epidemiology at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. Her research is broadly focused on measuring racism and estimating its effects on racial health inequities in the United States. She is particularly interested in using big data to measure area-level racial prejudice and examining biopsychosocial pathways to health. Eli draws on theory from across the social sciences to inform the questions she asks, the methods she uses, and the interpretation and communication of her research findings. Prior to starting her PhD, Eli completed her BA in Sociology and Feminist & Gender Studies at Colorado College and her MPH in Health & Social Behavior at UC Berkeley. When she’s not debugging R code, Eli enjoys rock climbing, running, and cooking.

Research Affiliate
Thu Nguyen, ScD, MSPH

Thu Nguyen, ScD, MSPH is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). She is an epidemiologist whose research focuses on the impact of modifiable social factors on minority health and health disparities. Dr. Nguyen uses a variety of different data sources (including Big Data) and approaches (including quantitative and qualitative research methods) to advance our understanding of social determinants of health. She is the principal investigator of a National Institutes of Health Pathway to Independence Award to create a novel state and county-level indicator of racial attitudes and bias using Twitter data and to examine its associations with birth outcomes and racial/ethnic disparities in birth outcomes.

Postdoctoral Scholar
Amanda Danielle Perez, MA

Amanda Danielle Perez, MA, is in her final year of the Social-Personality Psychology PhD program at UC Berkeley. She is also an adjunct professor of Psychology at DVC and lecturer at UC Berkeley. Her research interests revolve around 3 areas: (1) Causes, consequences, and remedies to implicit and explicit racial biases,  (2) Implicit racial Biases and Measurement, and (3) Racial Disparities in Health and Education. In her free time, Amanda enjoys building legos, crocheting, and spending time with her 5 furry pets.

Post Doctoral Scholar
Alexis Reeves, PhD

Alexis Reeves MPH, is a 4th year doctoral student in Epidemiologic Science at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Alexis’ broad research interests are in understanding how structural and interpersonal psychosocial stress interact to contribute to accelerated aging among racial minorities. She focuses on segregation, racial discrimination, socioeconomic stress and their effects on racial differences in early reproductive and cardio-metabolic aging. She also has expertise in utilizing causal inference and bias analysis methods to improve aging research which often is systematically biased – particularly affecting racial minorities. Alexis received her BS in Biological Sciences from UC Irvine and an MPH in Epidemiology/Biostatistics from UC Berkeley. Alexis also enjoys traveling, hiking, eating new things, cooking/baking new recipes from around the world and whipping up craft cocktails.

Student Researcher
Saba Sohail, MS

Saba Sohail, is currently a Research Associate at IgGenix, a biotech startup, at Johnson and Johnson labs incubator in South San Francisco. She is currently working on immunotherapies for food allergies. Her academic research interests are biological markers of stress, health disparities specifically related to social determinants of health. She completed her master’s in cell and molecular biology. Her thesis project- Examining the relationship between experiences of discrimination and telomere length in African American women- was a collaboration between the Health Equity Research Lab at SFSU and the HEARTs research group. She received her BS in Cell and Molecular Biology from San Francisco State University. Saba enjoys volunteering in local community organizations, cooking for friends and family, dancing, and spending time at the beach.

Research Affiliate
Erica Spears, PhD, MA

Erica Spears, PhD, MA is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Systems at the University of North Texas Health Science Center’s School of Public Health. Her research examines the role of intersestional stressors in health behaviors related to disease development and progression in racial and ethnic minority populations; and on culturally informed community-engaged implementation science. Her current work explores the influence of psychosocial stressors in Black communities on health behaviors associated with Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus. Dr. Spears’ research has been funded by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

Postdoctoral Scholar
Marilyn Thomas, PhD, MPH

Marilyn D. Thomas, MPH, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Departments of Epidemiology & Biostatistics and Psychiatry at UCSF. Her primary interest is to understand how social policies, practices, and norms contribute to racial and socioeconomic health disparities. She has an expertise in integrating social theory, measuring the exposure to racism, and estimating the intersections of race, socioeconomic position, and socio-environmental factors using statistical interaction and case-only study designs. Her research investigates the role that structural, institutional, and everyday social marginalization plays on disparities in accelerated aging, physiologic dysregulation, and police use of fatal force, and whether and to what extent socioeconomic and demographic factors may modify these effects. To practice self-care, she likes to hike, dine out, see live music/comedy/theater, travel, and play guitar.

Research Affiliate
Cheryl Woods-Giscombe, PhD, RN, PMHNP-BC, FAAN

Cheryl L. Woods Giscombé, PhD, RN, PMHNP-BC is the Melissa and Harry LeVine Family Professor of Quality of Life, Health Promotion and Wellness. Her program of research focuses on understanding and reducing stress-related health disparities among African Americans. Her research incorporates sociohistorical and biopsychosocial perspectives to investigate how stress and coping strategies contribute to stress-related psychological and physical health outcomes. Dr. Giscombé has a particular interest in the potential for integrative approaches to reduce mental health-related disparities among African Americans.

Student Researcher
Sijia Zhang, BA

Sijia Zhang is a proud alumni of the class of 2020 UC Berkeley, where she majored in Anthropology and Molecular and Cell Biology. She has been involved with the HEART Research Group for three years, and has worked on projects studying the use of race in public health research, as well as the experiences of racial discrimination by African American and Caucasian women. Currently, she is a medical student at UC San Diego, where she is conducting dermatology research on the relationship between the microbiome and Atopic Dermatitis.

Ongoing Projects

  • Dr. Allen, PhD and students assaying telomeres in the lab, to understand how stress affects biological aging.

    African American Women’s Heart & Health Study (AAWHHS), an observational cross-sectional study to examine associations between social-environmental stressors, physiologic stress and cardiometabolic risk among a community sample of midlife African American women residing in the San Francisco Bay area (n=200). Data include various measures of social and environmental stressors, a variety of biomarkers, a host of self-reported mental and physical health outcomes, and a rich collection of sociodemographics. (PI: Amani Allen, PhD)

  • National Validation Study on Measures of Anticipatory Racism Stress, a nationally representative survey of African American women ages 25-64 in the U.S. Study includes measures of stress, coping, health behaviors and a variety of mental and physical health outcomes (self-reported mental and physical health, sleep quality, chronic disease, depression) (n=710). (PI: Amani Allen, PhD)
  • Measures of Racism and Social Status (MORSS), a qualitative study exploring perceptions and experiences of racism among African American and European American women of reproductive age. Ongoing work is focused the measurement of racism and implications for validity in epidemiologic studies. (PI: Amani Allen, PhD)
  • Jackson Heart Study (JHS), the largest single-site, community-based epidemiologic investigation of environmental and genetic factors associated with cardiovascular disease among African Americans ever undertaken. The JHS is a community-based cohort study evaluating the etiology of cardiovascular, renal, and respiratory diseases among African Americans residing in the three counties (Hinds, Madison, and Rankin) that make up the Jackson, Mississippi metropolitan area. Data and biologic materials have been collected from 5306 Blacks and whites ages 35-84 at baseline (2000-2004) with two follow up examinations and another wave currently underway. Ongoing work examines psychosocial stress, early menarche and cardiometabolic risk.

    The African American Women’s Heart & Health Study recruited 208 African American women from around the Bay Area to better understand the relationship between social-environmental stress and health.

  • Collective Racial Bias and Cardiovascular Risk Among Black and White US Adults, a NIH-NHLBI funded dissertation (PI: E Michaels) applying various big data approaches to measure county-level racial bias and exploring associations with self-reported racial discrimination and cardiovascular risk progression through midlife among Black and White adults in the United States.
  • Monoracism and metabolic syndrome among young multiracial adults: an explorative longitudinal study to estimate the physiologic effects of experiencing monoracial identity assumption – a form of monoracial microaggression – on metabolic syndrome incidence through early adulthood. (PI: Tracy Lam-Hine)
  • Estimation of the undercounts of multiracial mortality in the US: a study to quantify the presence of structural monoracism using national death certificate data. Study will aim to model the magnitude of racial misclassification among multiracial decedents, and estimate mortality ratios in order to quantitatively assess the presence of structural monoracism in vital records.  (PI: Tracy Lam-Hine, MPH)

Selected Publications

Throughout 2020, the HEARTs research group continued to meet virtually, providing much-needed consistency and community during a difficult year.

In the News

HEARTs members, Marilyn Thomas, PhD and Alexis Reeves, PhD working through a directed-acyclic-graph in a lively HEARTs research group meeting.

Selected Presentations

HEARTs member, Eli Michaels, MPH, presents her research.

Dr. Allen, PhD presentes her research at the Chautauqua Institution

  • Rachel BerkowitzRace, Place, and Health. Podcast of presentation at the 2021 Interdisciplinary Association for Population Health Science (IAPHS) Virtual Conference [Presenters: Jacovowitz A, Berkowitz R*, Jamaica Robinson].
  • “Area-Level Racial Prejudice and Health: A Systematic Review”. Oral Presentation, American Public Health Association. Virtual Conference. October 2020.  [Michaels E*, Board C, Mujahid M, Riddell C, Johnson R, Allen A.]
  • “Differential Associations between Racial Discrimination, Self-reported Health and Allostatic Load among Black Women: Implications for Clinical Assessment and Epidemiologic Studies.” Oral Presentation, Society of Behavioral Medicine Annual Meeting, March, 2019. [Thomas M,* Michaels, E, Reeves A, Okuye, U, Price M, Hasson R, Chae D, Allen A].
  • “Association between Experiences of Discrimination and Telomere Length in African American women in the Bay Area.” Oral Presentation, California State University Research Competition. February, 2019. [Sohail S*, Mendez R, Marquez-Magana L]